Fremantle enjoyed something of a drama boom last year. Buoyed by hits including American Gods and The New Pope, the global producer’s drama revenue climbed 36% to €414M ($494M) in 2019.
Then the pandemic hit. Fremantle, like all other major producers, suffered unprecedented shutdowns across the 30 territories in which it operates. Production is only now getting fully back on its feet.
The coronavirus crisis will inevitably put a dent in Fremantle’s scripted growth trajectory. But underneath an anomaly that no-one saw coming lies a steely confidence that the company is well-positioned in a frantically competitive market.
That confidence flows from Andrea Scrosati, Fremantle’s chief operating officer. Scrosati has just added global drama to his brief following the departure of Sarah Doole (a “driving force” for the genre, according to Fremantle CEO Jen Mullin) this month and he now oversees a slate that currently spans 50 shows all over the world.
In an interview with Deadline, Scrosati says Fremantle’s partnerships with creators, such as True Detective executive producer Richard Brown, differentiate it at a time when streamers are cutting nine-figure deals to lock-in talent. “In a world where talent has enormous value — they know that — I don’t believe that talent should just equate to an advanced check,” says the former Sky Italia executive.
Elsewhere, Scrosati explains how the company’s global reach meant it never stopped producing during the pandemic, and reveals how coronavirus is actually speeding up, rather than slowing down, some shows as they remount filming. He also provides an update on the future of projects including Paolo Sorrentino’s new Netflix feature.
Scroll on for the full interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.
DEADLINE: When I’m speaking to executives these days, I always ask for a coronavirus health-check. We’re seeing shows restarting all over the world, are you now in a period where you are getting these back up and running and seeing momentum?
ANDREA SCROSATI: More than 80% of shows are back in production. Because we operate in 30 territories, there was never a moment during the coronavirus crisis where we stopped production completely. We were always producing somewhere. Some of our teams have done an incredible job. For example, the team in Australia, we managed to keep Neighbours in production.
We are seeing nearly all our territories back in production, [but] there are obviously issues in Latin America. That’s a more complicated area. There are some issues in the scripted area, where you have the high-end, commercial projects that mean that cast has to travel across a lot of territories and multiple locations. That is still complicated.
Anything you can do in a specific country, where you control the production facility or you can apply protocols and limit travel, those shows are basically back on track.
DEADLINE: I guess with international travel, it adds extra layers of complication to an already complicated situation due to various quarantine policies.
SCROSATI: Absolutely, but you also have potential risks for talent and for the cast around not being able to get home. Also, you might be going into countries where the healthcare you can access is not suitable. Our primary focus is to protect our teams, so we’re very careful about putting people in a place where it could be complicated for them.
DEADLINE: Is this international element impacting any of your shows in particular?
SCROSATI: We are in negotiations with Apple on how to restart The Mosquito Coast. We were shooting in Mexico, so we needed to stop, but it’s a pretty major production.
DEADLINE: Is it taking a lot longer to produce things? Is it more expensive? Obviously, this is all very unique to different companies and countries.
SCROSATI: You said it exactly right. Everything’s different by territory, by the dimension of the project. You have overall issues, such as the insurance issue — certain countries have provided some state cover. As producers, we are aware of the risks and we talk to our commissioners, but I would say every case is different.
On certain projects, we are actually going quicker because the situation has forced us. When we reopened sets in May and June, we were conscious there is a risk of a second wave. Everyone is trying to finish shooting by the end of summer, so if a second wave comes in, you are still able to post-produce remotely.
An example is a show we were producing in Italy called Anna, about a virus that has killed humanity and only kids survive. It’s about a town in the world where there are only children. We had to stop shooting around March and we’ve been back for another three weeks, with another three to go. We have decided to reduce the number of episodes from eight to six to be sure we could do it quicker. We are also shooting the third season of Shtisel in Israel and the production process is really focused on doing this quick.
DEADLINE: On Anna, by reducing the number of episodes, how is that impacting the narrative, or is it?
SCROSATI: It’s not. We have a showrunner who is the writer of the books and the scripts, and it has been his decision that it will work better for the show. I’ve been on enough sets in my time to know that it is a decision you should take sometimes regardless of coronavirus.
You do realize that sometimes you do not need all of that material, but sometimes you have a deal and there is a cost per episode, you tend to go the other way around [and make things longer.] This has focused us on the right thing to do for the show.
DEADLINE: So will that result in busier episodes? You have the same narrative, but it’s being told in a shorter period of time.
SCROSATI: You can say that the episodes will probably more intense.
While we speak, Fremantle has 49 dramas in production or pre-production, and among these 31 are either shooting or post-producing. Fremantle has many more shows outside of the U.S. and UK than any major U.S. studio, by far. In this pandemic, this has been an enormously strong point, because U.S. sets have been highly affected. In comparison, Scandinavia and Israel have been able to move forward. Even territories like Italy, that were heavily affected initially, have been able to restart production pretty quickly.
Season 3 of American Gods is in post-production, our team at Miso in Denmark are in the last two days of shooting Those Who Kill Season 2. We are shooting Cargo in Finland, we are in post-production on Deutschland 89 in Germany, we are shooting Exit Season 2 in Norway. We are in the final stages of post-production on The Investigation [in Sweden].
DEADLINE: American Gods is in post — was it mostly in the can before the pandemic struck?
DEADLINE: You’ve announced a new structure, with global drama chief Sarah Doole leaving and you taking over her brief. How will that change the way you’re working at a group level?
SCROSATI: It doesn’t really change. Creative director Christian Vesper was already in charge of managing relations with all our producers and talent on a day-to-day basis. What our structure is there for is to invest and support talent and producers.
Anyone that has a strong project knows that he or she can go out and shop it around and probably get a big check. What we do needs to be different. We need to be a place where talent comes and knows that, she or he has full creative independence and we will do our best to find the right home for that show.
We live in a world where Fremantle will never match the single flat check that Netflix, Apple or Amazon will be able to sign, but we can offer something different in that we be their partner in from a business point-of-view in their project. You don’t get the same advance, but you can potentially get a much bigger upside if the show is successful.
A good example is the deal we did with Richard Brown — a fantastic producer and one of the most sophisticated people I have ever worked with. He was behind shows like True Detective and Catch 22, and when he left Anonymous Content, somebody like Richard would have had endless possibilities to become a fulltime employee at one of the top firms. What he liked in our proposal is to be a partner. He has already brought us Wild Rabbit, a Miami-set series scripted by Randy McKinnon, which is about performance-enhancing sports drugs.
Going back to your question, our team is there to help Richard find the best writers for his shows, financing the initial component, and the signing of the best deal for that show. Finally, we share experiences and there was never a moment [that better] showed the relevance of this than coronavirus. The ability to share what we did on Neighbours, or what the team on American Idol... literally, everything was shared immediately and you saw it implemented after 24 hours. That has meant so much.
In a world where talent has enormous value — they know that — I don’t believe that talent should just equate to an advanced check. The best ideas come when you have a real energy and force behind you and that can be the idea itself, absolutely, but also if that idea can generate something that you are part of. If you control it, and it’s your baby, and you can grow it, that makes a difference.
They also get the difficult benefits of it. It’s not like, ‘I wrote my thing, I put it on your desk, goodbye.’ No — if there is a problem we have to solve it together. When you marry it’s in good and bad times. In creative work, it’s the same thing. We’re not operating a direct to consumer business that can generate billions through subscriptions. We need to manage a business that is financially sustainable, and striking deals that make sense for both parties.
DEADLINE: Do you think that model of partnering with creators has become more important than the traditional buy and build model that a lot of production companies have used to get to the point where they are now?
SCROSATI: The simple answer is yes, however, I would also say, there is never a solution that fits all. This is a business where there is opportunistic situations — I wouldn’t say that one approach doesn’t preclude the other.
It’s a more healthy approach because every party is involved in a healthy way. It’s also about bringing responsibility to the process, as well as delivering and owning success together. It’s also about independence. Everyone in this industry will say, ‘Come and work with us, we’re independent.’
In direct to consumer businesses you sell to subscribers and they are your clients. If you’re investing, you’re ultimately investing because you’re selling somebody a product. So if you’re talent you have to understand the business model of the company you’re partnering with. If the business model is to sell subscriptions, then their main focus is to have their clients happy.
They will tell you they are independent, but that’s not the case because you have to provide content that those clients want. If you work with a company like ours, our business is to create the strongest possible IP and content, and then find the right buyer for it. We live in a time when the number of buyers and the diversity of models has never been so big. That’s an opportunity for us and the talent. We will always find the right place.
DEADLINE: Drama made up 23% of Fremantle’s revenue in 2019. Do you expect that to grow?
SCROSATI: That component of our revenue will grow. The company, RTL and our shareholders have strongly supported us. Obviously, we don’t know the effect of coronavirus, which could have an impact on timing [of productions]. Eighty percent is a great number, it’s still less than what were planning to do.
DEADLINE: If coronavirus hadn’t occurred, is growth something you would have expected to happen?
SCROSATI: We’re working for the scripted component of the company to grow and that includes drama and scripted factual.
DEADLINE: Do you have a target in mind for the revenue you would like to be making from drama?
SCROSATI: No — and in this specific moment it would be wrong to indicate any specific target. There are so many moving parts.
DEADLINE: I wanted to ask about some specific projects and let’s start with Luca Guadagnino’s We Are Who We Are. Clearly, there has been a deal with BBC Three in the UK. Slightly surprising given I thought it would be on Sky in the UK. Can you provide an insight into how that came about?
Scrosati: I’m not involved in the sales dynamic, but what I can say is: The show was commissioned by HBO and Sky Italy, and obviously they have been our key partners. Sky has a model where they either buy all the territories, or they don’t and each territory is open for a normal negotiation. Our sales team obviously found a deal that worked for the show.
DEADLINE: Also, the Michael Winterbottom project on Boris Johnson announced a few weeks ago — how far along with that are you at the moment?
SCROSATI: Richard Brown tells me that Micheal is incredibly quick and has already written a very detailed arc of the showm, and has a first draft of the first episode. I’m waiting to hear their updates.
DEADLINE: Are you at the point where you’re talking to broadcasters and streamers, or is it too early?
SCROSATI: No, this is a very good example. The creative team on this one wants to write the scripts before going out and having any discussions with buyers. We absolutely supported that approach.
DEADLINE: Are we seeing more of that?
SCROSATI: You’re familiar with the success of Wildside. That’s historically the model of Wildside. That’s where Fremantle takes that risk and covers the upfront cost. You don’t need to do it on every show. There are shows we can develop with your partner. There are others the talent feels better to develop alone.
SCROSATI: The New Pope/Young Pope franchise has been a big international hit. Are we likely to see more of that in the future?
Scrosati: I don’t there are any plans at the moment for Season 3 of The Pope. But obviously, Wildside is behind My Brilliant Friend, which is now in preparation for Season 3, and The Apartment has just signed a deal with Netflix for a movie with Paolo Sorrentino, the director of The Pope franchise. This movie is called The Hand Of God. That’s what he’s going to do next, followed by a movie with Jennifer Lawrence, again co-produced by The Apartment.
DEADLINE: The Hand of God sounds like a really fantastic project…
SCROSATI: It’s a wonderful project. I’m very excited about it.
DEADLINE: When are you expecting to shoot?
SCROSATI: I think we’re shooting in September.
DEADLINE: Diego Maradona’s legal representative said he might be in touch. Have you heard from Maradona’s lawyers or are you not expecting that to be an issue?
SCROSATI: I’m not expecting that to be an issue. You have to respect confidentiality on the storyline, but once they know what the movie’s about, it’s not an issue.
DEADLINE: In terms of what has taken place in recent months with coronavirus – where does this rank among the challenges you’ve faced your career?
SCROSATI: [With] our CEO Jen Mullin, CFO Andrew Bott and HR director Nicky Gray, we established a daily call to go through everything. What we found out was, even though, we are a super-connected team, we were talking more during the first few weeks and months of this than we have ever done.
Even though there were a lot of complex things to manage, I never felt that frustration of a challenge because we were always sharing and getting advice. It was different to other situations I have faced in my career where I felt the entire challenge on my shoulders. It really was teamwork that made it much more simple.